First Person / The lady could play

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Rise and shine!" says Nina.

Nina Lesowitz, my indefatigable publicist, has run to a Madison Avenue coffee shop to pick up breakfast. I've come to New York City to tape a "Piano Girl" segment for Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" program on National Public Radio.

I wonder if I should drink the coffee. I need to wake up, but my nerves are shot and the caffeine won't help. Awake and nervous is better than calm and comatose. I drink the coffee.

"God, I hate this," I say.


"I'm nervous. You should have let me sleep until 20 minutes before the taping."

"Yeah, but then you wouldn't have time to do your hair."

"Nina, it's radio. Hair doesn't matter."

"Hair always matters."

"Piano Jazz" is the longest-running cultural program on NPR. Marian hosted the program. She played with guts but never relinquished her femininity. She connected the gap between sensitivity and strength, playing with conviction and vulnerability, wit and intelligence, innocence and maturity. She maintained an air of English graciousness -- treating each guest like a long-lost best friend, using her warm and smoky voice to invite the listener into her living room for a little music and a cocktail or two.

"She has played with everyone," says Nina. "Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bill Evans. The list goes on and on."

"Oh, Nina, stop. This is making me more nervous."

"Alicia Keys and Tony Bennett and, what's his name? The blind guy -- you know who I mean."


"No, the other one."


"Oh yeah, Ray Charles. Dizzy Gillespie and Willie Nelson were on. Hank Jones and Norah Jones ... "

Marian called me in Germany the previous month -- she had read my book "Piano Girl" and related to my tales of piano gig mishaps. We talked for almost an hour about music and family and raising kids in Europe.

A week after our conversation I received a formal letter from her asking me to be a guest on "Piano Jazz." I ran my hands over her elegant stationery -- how odd it felt to receive a real letter -- and gave it a place of honor in my scrapbook. Then, feeling a little sad, I called Marian's home number.

"I can't be on your show," I said. "I'm not a jazz musician. Not even close."

"Oh, that's OK," she said. "It's all just music. Time for something different. It will be fun!"

Nina and I arrive at Manhattan Beach studio five minutes before noon.

"Marian will be here in a moment," says Shari, the producer. "She's freshening up a bit."

I check out the two Baldwin grand pianos sitting side-by-side behind the glass partition.

"By the way," Shari says. "Marian is sensitive about pictures, so no photos, please."

"Of course," I say. "You might want to tell Nina. She tends to be shutter happy."

"Will do," says Shari.

I head into the studio and pull the charts out of my backpack.

The studio door clicks behind me, and there she is.

"Robin!" Marian says. "It's great to have you here!" She is wearing a pantsuit and a silky blouse with a bow at the neck. She hugs me.

Any woman who has managed to make a living as a musician, especially a jazz musician, blows me away. Marian grew up during a time when female jazz musicians were a rarity. In a way they still are.

"It takes me a few minutes to get comfortable," Marian says. "I need a hip replacement, but who has time for that? I want to tour in the fall. My agent has a nice string of gigs lined up."

We sit on our individual piano benches.

I hand Marian the charts I've brought with me. "These mean nothing to me," she says. "Never did care much for reading notes! I play by ear."

I put the charts away and grab a pencil. Together we decide who takes which chorus for each of the songs. I'm scribbling notes, but she doesn't write down a thing.

"I hate planning too much," she says.

"Maybe that's the secret to a happy life."

"Might be. It works for me."

I vow that my next 50 years will be more spontaneous.

"Let's try a chorus of 'Night and Day,' " she says. She turns and faces the piano. And then, before my eyes, this sweet English rose of a grandmother turns into a jazz cat. Get down, Marian. "One, two, one, two three, four ... "

Marian conducts the entire show -- several hours of taping -- without consulting a single note of music or any kind of written prompt about my book. With her ears leading the way, she jumps in and nails each piano piece on the first take. Her joy rubs off on me. Look at her go -- here's a 90-year-old woman playing piano the way she wants to. She has grown into her music and stayed young because of it. If there's a better role model for a musician, I don't know who it is.

We play the last chord of the last song, and Marian says, "I think we should take some pictures." She grabs a can of Final Net hair spray and a brush and cranks her hair.

Nina flies through the studio door with her camera and chokes on the hair-spray fumes. Marian keeps spraying.

"See?" Nina whispers to me. "Hair always matters."

"You played your ass off," says Marian.

"You played your ass off, too," I say to Marian. Her hand is on my waist, and she gives me a conspiratorial squeeze.

Marian's driver whisks her away, and I stay at the studio to record several solo holiday pieces for Marian's "Piano Jazz" Christmas CD. My piano slips out of tune, so I slide over to Marian's. I imagine, just for a moment, what it's like to be her.



Robin Goldsby is a pianist and author -- she wrote "Piano Girl," "Rhythm," and "Waltz of the Asparagus People" -- who grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Chatham University. She currently lives outside of Cologne, Germany. You can listen to her playing with Marian McPartland at


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